Tribute albums are always problematical in that half the time, they only make you want to go back and hear the object of their tribute. Oftentimes, liberties are taken that aren’t appreciated. Of course, there have been notable exceptions: Harry Nilsson, Buddy Holly, ABBA, Sly & The Family Stone, Louis Armstrong and Nina Simone have all had keeper tributes. Album tributes are rare. “Rubber Soul” by the Beatles and “Nebraska” by Bruce Springsteen have both had multi-artist keeper tributes. Now Bruce gets a second album done up and done up right!
“Dead Man’s Town: A Tribute To Born In The U.S.A.” is so good, I dare say I like it better than the original. At least today. Probably tomorrow too. (Ask me again next week.) It’s such a kick to hear these songs reconfigured, re-imagined, with creative-as-hell arrangements and a license to interpret yet stay roots-reverent to its source. The key is its vocals: smart. country-styled, folkie-laced, like early Dylan, John Prine or Steve Earle (whose son, Justin Townes Earle, peals off the layers of bombast to get inside “Glory Days” in a way I never thought possible). I may not know who Trampled By Turtles, Joe Pug, Blitzen Trapper or some of these others are but they’re all in service to the song so it almost doesn’t matter. They subjugate their individual assets to conform in stylistic embrace of Bruce’s rather universal sentiments. I haven’t thought much about “No Surrender” lately until Hank’s only granddaughter, Holly Williams, gives it that Emmylou sheen enough to resurrect it from the dead pile of songs I used to swear by. “Dead Man’s Town” is simply too damn delicious to stop listening to it anytime soon. Hell, Bruce’s template has been boiled into my brain thousands of times. To hear it anew, taken down the beautiful dirt road of Americana, with each new vocal so so refreshing, just makes me want to hear each and every Bruce album given the same treatment. I love it!
When five singer/songwriters band together for a debut after each has been kickin’ it hard and mighty for others over the course of two decades, the weight of credibility is such that high hopes ensue. In this case, members of John Oates, Blues Traveler, Phil Lesh and Ween have christened themselves Brothers Keeper. Add DJ Logic for some scratch and you’ve got “Todd Meadows” (8150 Records), a rockin’ Americana blast from the heartland recorded in Memphis. All but one of the 11 tracks shine with tasteful guitar licks, different and enticing vocals depending upon the track, satisfying instrumentation including fiddle and accordion, humane lyrics about universal concerns and an over-all audaciousness that belies their world-weary cynicism (which also peeks out in-between the grooves). The only misstep? Hey, I love The Band as much as anyone but if I don’t hear “The Weight” again for the rest of my life (except when Mavis Staples sings it), I won’t be upset. You’d think The Band was a one-hit wonder by all the constant recordings of only this one song. Hey boys, ever hear “Jemima Surrender”?
Duke Robillard is a name you’ll see on dozens of albums that aren’t his own. As a producer, arranger, guitarist and composer, he seems constantly active with the careers of others. That’s why a big smile crossed my face when I went to my mailbox the other day and saw “Callling All Blues!” (Stony Plain) by The Duke Robillard Band where he uses the genre as a jumping off point to turn in a 10-track gem right up there with classic American bands like The Band, Little Feat, The Radiators or NRBQ. Self-produced in his native Rhode Island, its decidedly Memphis orientation includes the one-chord boogie of “Motor Trouble,” but still takes time out for the Texas-styled blues of “Nasty Guitar” and a cover of Alabama’s funky Carter Brothers (“She’s So Fine”). “Confusion Blues” is a humorous ditty that Mose Allison might have written (but didn’t). And some of the more hard-edged blues would’ve fit right onstage with Howling Wolf.
Don’t forget, this is the guy who started the band Roomful of Blues in 1967, then replaced Jimmie Vaughan in The Fabulous Thunderbirds before producing the band of Muddy Waters for two albums when they called themselves The Legendary Blues Band upon Muddy’s demise. He’s also worked with Big Joe Turner, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Dr. John and dozens of others. “Calling All Blues!” is aptly named for its fascination of all the various geographical locales and blues sub-genres. It could have been called “State Of The Blues 2014.” There’d be no finer host.